Usnea is a genus of mostly pale grayish-green fruticose lichens that grow like leafless mini-shrubs or tassels anchored on bark or twigs.:203 The genus is in the family Parmeliaceae. It grows all over the world.

Members of the genus are commonly called old man's beard, or beard lichen.:203 It resembles Evernia, which is also called tree moss.

Like other lichens it is a symbiosis of a fungus and an alga. In Usnea, the fungus belongs to the division Ascomycota, while the alga is a member of the division Chlorophyta.

Members of the genus are similar to those of the genus Alectoria.:148 A distinguishing test is that the branches of Usnea are somewhat elastic, but the branches of Alectoeria snap cleanly off.:148

Morphology and reproduction

As a fruticose lichen, Usnea appears as a shrub-like growth on host trees. Unlike other similar-looking fruticose lichens, species in this genus have an elastic chord or axis running through the middle of the thallus that can be revealed by gently pulling a filament apart from either end.[2] It reproduces via vegetative means through fragmentation, asexual means through soredia, or sexual means through ascogonium and spermatogonium.[3] The growth rate of lichens in nature is slow, but the growth rate has been sped up in laboratory conditions where Usnea is being cultured.[5] Usnea looks very similar to the plant Spanish moss, so much so that the latter's Latin name is derived from it (Tillandsia usneoides, the 'Usnea-like Tillandsia').


Many species have been described. A three-volume series by Józef Motyka published in 1936 and 1947 distinguished 451 species.[6] Many of these are now regarded as morphological varieties and adaptations to local circumstances. The taxonomic categorization of many members of this genus remains uncertain. The number of recognized species in Finland is decreasing for this reason, from 34 in 1951 to 25 in 1963 and only 12 in 2000.[8] It is now noted as including more than 600 species and being one of the largest genera within the Parmeliaceae.[10] The species Usnea longissima was renamed Dolichousnea longissima in 2004.[11]


Like other lichens, Usnea often grows on sick or dying trees due to the pre-existing loss of canopy leaves, allowing for greater photosynthesis by the lichen's algae; this leads some gardeners to mistakenly blame the lichen for the tree's leaf loss and illness.[12]

Usnea is very sensitive to air pollution, especially sulfur dioxide.[13] Under bad conditions they may grow no larger than a few millimetres, if they survive at all. Where the air is unpolluted, they can grow to 10–20 cm long. It can sometimes be used as a bioindicator, because it tends to only grow in those regions where the air is clean, and of high quality.


Medical claims

According to Paul Bergner, Author of Medical Herbalism. "The usnic acid in usnea is effective against gram positive bacteria such as streptococcus and staphylococcus, making usnea a valuable addition to herbal formulas for sore throats and skin infections. It is also effective against a bacterium that commonly causes pneumonia Table 19.x shows some conditions that usnea has been used for in European research."[14]

There is reason to believe that Usnea, in high concentrations, could possess some toxicity. The National Toxicology Program is currently evaluating the issue.[15]


Usnea species have been used to create orange, yellow, green, blue and purple dyes for textiles.[16][17]


Usnea barbata has been used in cosmetic production for its antimicrobial and antifungal properties as a preservative and deodorant.[18]


Usnea barbata when dry is extremely flammable and is often used as a firestarter.


There are about 86 species of Usnea.[19]